These five high school students are not household names, and yet they live by various names and labels in virtually every American household.
Hannah Bailey is the "rebel" with an artistic flair. She aspires to live the kind of life that lives on long after she's gone. She's a free-spirit, yet she's so emotionally available that she's able to be easily wounded...sometimes devastatingly so.
Megan Krizmanich is a princess. She's attractive and knows it. She's rich and flaunts it. She's frequently mean and likes to and usually does get her way.
Colin Clemens is the jock. He's a basketball star who knows his only hope of going to college is a basketball scholarship.
Jake Tusing is a self-described band geek who makes Anthony Michael Hall look suave and Ducky look stylish. He has a rip-roaring case of acne and speaks in the kind of monotone that makes you think he's going to suddenly announce "Bueller, Bueller."
Mitch Reinholt is a heartthrob who, like Megan, knows it and enjoys it. He's got a heart, but it seems to scare the shit out of him. He could be a good guy, but he seems genetically pre-disposed to be a jerk.
These five young adults and the identities they carry with them are the subject of "American Teen," Oscar-nominated documentarian Nanette Burstein's latest film and a darling at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
The film follows these five, the class of 2005 at Warsaw Community High School in Warsaw, Indiana, throughout their final year in high school.
Virtually every moment of "American Teen" feels like a cinematic sibling to John Hughes' "Breakfast Club," with one glaring exception...these teens are electrifyingly and, at times, heartbreakingly real.
Watching "American Teen" is a challenging experience. It is one of the few films released this year to evoke both heartfelt laughter and tears, sometimes within the same scene.
The journey of Hannah Bailey is easily the film's most emotionally resonant and unforgettable. Within seconds of Hannah's appearance onscreen, it is abundantly clear that this is a sparkling and dynamic young woman who will either be swallowed up by those around her or will find a way to courageously say "fuck you" to their labels and limitations and learn to fly. Her final year of high school nearly derails her emotionally, partly owing to a failed romance and partly owing to the failure of those around her provide even a semblance of decent parenting.
It would be easy, on the other hand, to rip apart the openly bitchy and mean-spirited Megan. Without excusing her behavior, however, Burstein captures with tremendous clarity the high pressure vacuum in which she lives. Her father seems oblivious to the unrelenting pressure he places upon her, and she carries with her the weight of a secret that seems to only aggravate what feels like a simmering over rage that finally results in behavior for which even she cannot be excused.
Jake, the band geek, seems to have lived the most isolated life as only Mitch acknowledges having even met him and that was in only one class. Jake's senior year is filled with a determination to finally have a girlfriend, but when he finally gets one he says things like "There's a lot of grease on the table now...because I put my face on it."
I've used a lot of lame pick-up lines, but I'm fairly sure that flaunting one's excessively greasy skin and acne isn't the way to go when seeking a long-term relationship.
Colin's pressure is different, yet no less jarring, as he deals with a father who reminds him repeatedly that if he fails to get a basketball scholarship then it's off to the Army. His father does, on a positive note, provide "American Teen" with some of its lighter moments since he performs as an Elvis impersonator on the side and appears in full Elvis gear a couple times during the film.
Mitch seems to get the short end of the cinematic stick here, as he largely disappears following the ending of a relationship and only his scenes of trying to deal with the peer pressure of dating outside his clique really resonate. His is the least defined character, and the only one for whom there doesn't seem to be a sense of a balanced portrayal.
There are scenes in "American Teen" that will have you screaming at the screen and, at times, shaking your head in disbelief and believing that Burstein has surely manipulated these teens for dramatic purposes.
For example, Burstein captures Megan vandalizing a fellow student's home and writing a derogatory slur, something it's hard to imagine she would willingly do with a camera on the scene. Burstein captures everything from a text message break-up to a girlfriend cheating to the complete viciousness that follows a teen girl unwisely sending a topless photo of herself to a boy she likes and, of course, the photo making its way around the school district.
Could these things really happen on camera? Should these things really happen on camera?
The power of "American Teen" is in capturing these everyday moments of life that DO, indeed, happen virtually every day in the lives of our teenagers. Facebook, Myspace, the internet and reality TV have blurred the line between fantasy and reality and, I dare say, that teenagers are used to living lives that are exposed and accessible.
Burstein has reported that she had 1,200 hours of film by the time this year long project was completed. She whittled it down into a 102 minute film and, yes, there are times "American Teen" feels sculpted and pre-determined.
Were "American Teen" a wide release, big screen picture I would be more willing to accept that these young people posed for the camera in the hope of a big cinematic break. However, "American Teen" is an arthouse documentary featuring five young adults from the heartland who showed up for a casting call, with the exception of Megan who met the director while giving her a tour, and decided to go for it for reasons ranging from Mitch's hope for a "living yearbook" to Jake's desire to "break the boredom."
The simple truth is there was no great reward for these five young people to make this film and, in fact, as their senior years collectively became filled with obstacles, challenges and human dramas, there became more risks than benefits to continuing the filming.
While it goes without saying that "American Teen" is destined to be the first feature documentary to receive an Oscar nomination this year, it is held back from greatness by two majorly distracting issues.
First, the aforementioned sense of "staginess" does occasionally overwhelm the film. Some will be able to readily accept that such a defined story arc is a result of Burstein's editing, others will find such definition distracting and less believable.
Secondly, Burstein incorporates into the film animated sequences designed to represent the physical and emotional journeys of these young people. While these sequences are well done, they are an unnecessary distraction and take away from a uniformly strong group of young people who command our full attention throughout the film.
One of the best films ever made about the high school experience, "American Teen" is a heartfelt and richly human film that should unquestionably be shared by parents and children alike.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic